Tag Archives: Belgrade Theatre Coventry

Woke!

SLEEPING BEAUTY

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 23rd November, 2018

 

No matter how beautiful you are, there’s no danger of dozing off during this year’s festive offering at the Belgrade.  As usual, it’s written and directed by the mighty Iain Lauchlan, who also appears as amiable dame, Nanny Fanny McWheeze, this is a cavalcade of fun, showing off Lauchlan’s mastery of the form, his skills as a performer, and crucially, his innovations.  For example, the traditional slosh scene (icing a cake) is set-up brilliantly, involving an Alexa-type device (a Scottish version named Morag!) who reels off the instructions of how to play the sport curling, which the cast mistake for cake-decorating tips.  Add to the mix, a hapless member of the audience who is game for a laugh, and this extended slapstick scene builds superbly.  Genius!

Also returning is Lauchlan’s regular stage partner, the hilarious Craig Hollingsworth.  This year he’s Muddles the Jester, and he’s as irritable as Nanny Fanny is amiable.  Hollingsworth’s short temper and long-suffering stance are the perfect foil for Lauchlan’s kindnesses, and also for the more saccharine elements of the story.  If this partnership ever splits, the Belgrade will probably crumble.

In the title role, Melissa Brown-Taylor is a plucky Princess Belle, while Joanna Thorne’s Prince Valiant is leggy and heroic as a principal boy should be; (it seems contemporary theatre is catching up with the gender-swapping that has been a staple of pantomime all along!).  Declan Wilson is a cuddly King Hugo, with Vicky Field making an impression as his ill-tempered, ill-fated Queen.  Field soon reappears as Grunge, sidekick to the evil fairy in an enjoyable portrayal.  Anna Mitcham’s good fairy Azurial is, in her own words, ‘perky’, assisted by a troupe of youngsters as her fairy assistants.  But it is Laura Judge’s villainous Carabosse who almost steals the show.  Bitterly melodramatic, Judge’s high-camp performance is a treat.

There is spectacle, of course: watch out for a dragon (it’d be hard to miss!) and a lively ensemble in beautiful story-book costumes by Terry Parsons.  Jenny Phillips’s choreography gets its big moment in the Act Two opener.  The original songs (by Lauchlan, Liz Kitchen and Steve Etherington) aren’t bad, each one serving its purpose and played by a tight combo under the able baton of Dan Griffin.  There are well-worn routines given a new spin, and up-to-date topical references.

The overall feel is trad meets new, and like the Prince and Princess, it’s a perfect match.

Iain Lauchlan & Craig Hollingsworth as Nanny McWheeze & Muddles - photo credit Robert Day

Something’s come between us! Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth perform a spot of high culture (Photo: Robert Day)

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Singing with The Enemy

WE’LL LIVE AND DIE IN THESE TOWNS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 2nd October, 2018

 

Geoff Thompson’s new musical takes its score from the debut album of Coventry band, The Enemy.  Not being familiar with the group or their work, I am able to take the show at face-value, without the jolts of recognition that usually come with jukebox musicals.  Mamma Mia! this ain’t!   Telling the story of front man Argy’s struggle with a sudden, paralysing attack of stage fright on the day of his big homecoming gig, this turns out to be a thoughtful, poignant piece, as Argy embarks on an odyssey to face people from his past life in obscurity and come to terms with issues that have been plaguing him all along.

Thompson’s dialogue has a lyrical quality, which elevates the exchanges, adding to the mystical nature of Argy’s quest for enlightenment.  The show is structured mainly around two-handed scenes, with each person Argy encounters bringing up a different facet of our protagonist’s past.

Quinn Patrick is excellent as Argy’s ailing brother, a lapsed poet, in a bittersweet scene – Patrick later doubles as a comedy vicar for the show’s most spiritual scene.  Julie Mullins (formerly of Neighbours) provides strong support in a couple of roles, making me think how well suited she’d be for the role of Mrs Johnson in Blood Brothers… while Steven Serlin makes a strong impression as Argy’s manager and later as former friend, Owl, complete with a creditable Brummie accent.  Mark Turnbull shines as a bearded busker, with the look of the late Chas Hodges and a voice similar to Tom Jones, and Molly-Grace Cutler is suitably bitter and resentful as Argy’s alcoholic sister.  Meg Forgan also steps out of the backing band to portray Megan, thrilled to be namechecked in one of Argy’s songs.

But it is the central performance from Tom Milner as the troubled troubadour that keeps us hooked, in a sensitive, rounded and powerful portrayal, with searing vocals and a charismatic presence.  We sort of know all along Argy’s going to get his act together, but Milner takes us with him on Argy’s journey so that when the gig finally comes it’s a moment of exhilarating release.

It’s all played out on the stylised urban landscape of Patrick Connellan’s concrete block set, backed by projections of local streets and buildings.  Director Hamish Glen balances the humour and the poignancy of each scene; the show is bittersweet but never maudlin.

There are a couple of scenes that could do with trimming in terms of getting their point across but on the whole, this is an intelligent, grown-up piece with a strong, melodic score that proves irresistible by the end.  The onstage band is tight, the cast members uniformly brilliant, making for a thought-provoking and ultimately moving experience.  Argy’s journey seems deeply personal but Thompson’s writing speaks to the artist he believes to reside in each of us.

Electrifying.

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The Enemy within: Argy (Tom Milner) battles his demons (Photo: Robert Day)

 


Rough Magic

THE TEMPEST

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 19th June, 2018

 

It’s not the first time The Tempest has been set in outer space.  The film, Forbidden Planet, translated the action – and the text – to a sci-fi setting; then a stage show, one of the first jukebox musicals, Return To The Forbidden Planet used Shakespearean lines in tandem with 1960s songs.  Now, Oddsocks Productions return to the play with sci-fi in mind, along with their trademark silliness and pop music… and it all makes for an evening of bonkers entertainment.

The Shakespeare is peppered with sci-fi references, with Star Trek featuring heavily, and Star Wars a close second.  Prospero is a kind of Old Ben Kenobi figure, with daughter Miranda’s hair curled in Princess Leia-like buns.  An engineer called Scottie even puts in an appearance.  The stroke of genius is having Trinculo, usually a jester, portrayed as a droid – Top marks to Gavin Harrison for his Anthony Daniels/C3PO impersonation!  Harrison also appears as the villainous Antonio, a baddie in search of a panto; although the cuts to the script mean he doesn’t get up to much, Harrison poses and postures beautifully, and it’s a pleasure to boo him.

Another stalwart returning for more madness is Dominic Gee Burch.  His Caliban, a mutant fish-man, as if the Creature from the Black Lagoon got too close to a nuclear reactor, is a gift for a gifted physical comedian.  New to the company, Amy Roberts makes a snooty ‘Alonza’, while her drunken ‘Stephanie’ is straight out of Starfleet Academy – the Geordie Shore campus.  Making her Oddsocks debut as a feisty, petulant Miranda, Alice Merivale is wildly enjoyable.  Her scenes with Ferdinand are especially good – mainly because it’s a moment when Shakespeare is allowed to come to the fore.  As Ferdinand and also an alien Ariel, Matt Penson speaks the verse beautifully, while maintaining the sense of anarchic fun that characterises an Oddsocks performance.

Director/genius Andy Barrow plays Prospero, like a bald Gandalf wafting his magic staff about, and he’s as gloriously silly as you’d expect, yet when it comes to the big speeches, Prospero’s famous lines (We are such stuff as dreams are made on…) he plays it straight, as though establishing his credentials.  Not that he needs to, of course, but he wisely reins in the slapstick and the silliness and the mucking around and lets the power of Shakespeare’s words work its magic.  Speaking of magic, the special effects are all gloriously low-tech, with some simple conjuring tricks adding to the atmosphere.

There are a couple of misfires but overall, it’s more hit than miss, and you’re never waiting long for the next thing to laugh at.  I feel more could be made of the Caliban and Trinculo under a blanket scene, for example, but then there are moments of sheer brilliance: I don’t want to spoil anything, but Ridley Scott’s Alien has a lot to answer for.

If you haven’t seen The Tempest before, you might not find this version all that enlightening.  If you haven’t (and if you have!) seen Oddsocks before, you’re in for a wild ride and a rocking good time.

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Brave new worlds! Prospero (Andy Barrow) and Miranda (Alice Merivale)


Just My Cup of Chai

THE GAME OF LOVE AND CHAI

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 24th April, 2018

 

Marivaux’s 18th Century French farce, The Game of Love and Chance, gets an update from Tara Arts and Nigel Planer of The Young Ones, no less.  It’s a remarkably good fit, translating the action from the French bourgeoisie to a present-day Indian family in Britain, where notions of class and caste dictate social mores and aspirations.  Widowed Kamala-Ji is keen to marry off daughter Rani, who is a successful, independent young woman who works as a solicitor.  Rani wishes to retain her independence until she can marry for love, if there is such a match to be made.  She faces pressure from trashy cousin Sita, who contrasts with Rani in every way possible.  A prospective groom is on his way to size up his potential wife… Rani and Sita concoct a plan to switch identities and do some sizing up of the groom for themselves.  Unbeknownst to them, the groom has hatched an identical plan and has switched with his unlicensed Uber driver…

The script is peppered with bang up-to-date references along with Punjabi (I think it is) words and phrases but the performance style is all traditional.  There is a declamatory aspect to the delivery, direct audience address, and much heightened posing and posturing.  The characters are drawn with broad strokes and the action is almost cartoonish at times.  It is, all of it, hilarious.

Director Jatinder Verma has an eye for comic detail and doesn’t miss a trick, keeping things snappy so this fabulous confection has no opportunity to stale.  The action is broken up with Bollywood song-and-dance numbers, all performed with gusto and fun – where the French originals would have featured courtly masques or brief balletic interludes.  Claudia Mayer’s set gives us a garden of privet archways for the comings and goings, with a backdrop of suburban semis peering over the top.  Her costumes strongly signal the characters (and their disguises) and there is a glorious nod to Marivaux in the finale, courtesy of designer Adam Wilshire.

Goldy Notay is absolutely delicious as matriarch Kamala-Ji, with Deven Modha great fun as Rani’s camp brother Sunny.  Ronny Jhutti throws himself into the role of Nitin – the driver masquerading as the groom – with relish, while both Kiren Jogi’s Sita and Sharon Singh’s Rani clearly differentiate when they are pretending to be each other.  Singh is especially good, bringing more than a hint of snobbishness a la Penelope Keith to her portrayal of the snitty Rani.  Adam Samuel-Rai makes an energetic, passionate, even neurotic suitor, as the handsome Raj.  The entire ensemble rises to the demands of this kind of material, popping off quickfire asides and larger-than-life reactions with skill.

This fast and funny production reminds us that the old theatrical forms and conventions still have currency and that people have much in common whatever their cultural background.  A fabulous treat of a show; I loved every second.

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Adam Samuel-Bal and Sharon Singh wrestling (with their emotions)


Playing Doctors and Nurses

MINDGAME

Belgrade Theatre, Wednesday 14th March, 2018

 

Prolific writer Anthony Horowitz turns his attention to the stage with this small-scale thriller very much along the lines of mega-hits Sleuth and Deathtrap – plays that have a small cast, an intriguing plot and more twists than a Chubby Checker convention.  The set-up: we meet Styler, waiting in the office of Dr Farquhar, in an upmarket mental health facility aka hospital for the criminally insane.  Styler, dictating into a recorder, doles out exposition: he is a true-crime writer come to interview notorious inmate, the serial killer Easterman, for his next project; the doctor has been keeping him waiting for two hours…

We pick up right away that things are not what they seem.  Contradictions in the dialogue and, more subtly, changes in the set: a video screen for the window changes imperceptibly, for example.  As soon as Farquhar shows up, the plot gets into motion.  The doctor is something of an oddball – and the discerning audience member will be trying to pre-empt the surprises and guess the outcome.

It’s played with conviction.  Andrew Ryan’s Styler and Michael Sherwin’s Farquhar complement each other well, with the doctor more often than not holding court, adding to the weirdness and the unsettling feeling that something bad is about to take place.  Making up the trio is Sarah Wynne Kordas as Nurse Paisley – or is she?  Violence erupts, power shifts, layers of falsehood and diversion are stripped away… There are a few gasps from the audience who don’t see things coming, but the plot, rather than thickening, seems diluted by each new turnabout, and there are holes in the logic you could drive an ambulance through.

What we are left with is a bit of a mess, an exercise in unpleasantness that doesn’t measure up to the aforementioned greats of the genre.  It’s well-presented and director Karen Henson focusses our attention and gives us surprises at all the right moments but for me the play doesn’t gel, and mental illness as entertainment has surely had its day. I’m not crazy about it.

Not as clever as it pretends, Mindgame teases, amuses and puzzles but is ultimately unsatisfying.

mindgame

Michael Sherwin and Andrew Ryan enjoy a cosy chat

 


Thrilling

THRILLER Live

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 6th March, 2018

 

This electrifying tribute show is doing the rounds and this week it’s Coventry’s turn to become reacquainted with the back catalogue of the ‘King of Pop’, Michael Jackson.  We have several vocalists and a troupe of dancers performing hit after hit, but the songs are broken up by occasional verbal addresses during which facts and figures are rattled off: in this year, he sold this many copies… and so on.  Nothing controversial is alluded to.  Biographical detail is little more than dates of changing record companies and the release of iconic albums.  All this is relayed to us by two of the male vocalists, Britt Quintin (who has Jackson’s spindly physique) and Shaquille Hemmans (who has Jackson’s falsetto to a T).  It’s a bit like a Show and Tell session in school.  If so, they’d get top marks for effort.

The first half concentrates on Jackson’s early career, including boyhood hits – these are performed in the main by female vocalists Adriana Louise and Ina Seidou – and it’s a nostalgia trip and a half.  I’ll Be There, I Want You Back, ABC – and disco greats like Can You Feel It and Blame It On The Boogie.  The choreography takes us back to the bygone eras of the 60s and 70s and the costumes are spectacularly in keeping, rocketing us back to the golden age of Top of the Pops and Pan’s People.

There is a bit that makes me cringe at first when our hosts Britt and Shaquille divide the audience in two and teach us responses, and it gets a bit panto, but we all get into the spirit of it.  We are pumped and ready to boogie, but instead the number ends, we are plunged into a blackout during which we fumble for our seats, and what follows is a big production number of Remember The Time, which is from Jackson’s later output.  I am ready to bop but am forced to wait until later.  This odd change of gear aside, the production is irresistible.  By the way, the ‘Egyptian’ choreography for Remember The Time is superb.

Rory Taylor’s searing She’s Out of My Life is a highlight, but the hits and highlights keep coming.  The second half gives us all the biggies: Billie Jean (Eddy Lima, the most Jacksonesque of the performers – like an MJ who has done some serious gym time) thrills with the effortless moonwalking – all of Jackson’s signature moves are here: the broken robot, the crotch-grabbing (although this is used sparingly); Smooth Criminal is gobsmackingly staged; but Thriller is the one we’re waiting for, and it does not disappoint.  Dancers in zombie garb totter through the audience, gathering to perform the iconic routine. (Quick trip to Pedants’ Corner: the tropes mentioned in the lyrics belong to the Horror genre, not strictly speaking Thrillers… but what do I know?  Perhaps “This is Horror, Horror Night” doesn’t work as well…) Earth Song is the most emotive number of the night and by the time we get to Black Or White the entire place is ‘getting down’.  The music is played live by a tight ensemble, led by Andy Jeffcoat on the keyboard, with an authentic sound that comes across as fresh and contemporary.

There is a more interesting show, dramatically speaking, yet to be written about Jackson’s phenomenal, troubled life, but this exhilarating act of worship is just the tonic for a chilly evening in Coventry – or anywhere else, for that matter.

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Not Bad: Eddy Lima and the zombies


LOL-alot

SPAMALOT

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 27th February, 2018

 

We all know them, the bores who can spout reams and reams of Monty Python scripts and manage to suck all the humour of it, as if just saying the lines is enough, when what matters, perhaps more than the clever-silliness of the words, is the delivery.  The challenge for any Spamalot cast is to go beyond reciting the familiar lines and aping the original performers.  Yes, we expect certain intonations; yes, we expect men as unconvincing women with squawky voices; and yes, we expect iconic scenes from the film (Monty Python and the Holy Grail, for those not in the know – P.S. Where have you been?) – Show’s creator Eric Idle wisely gives us all of this with plenty of new material to make something fresh, something new, something with its own life.

I say ‘fresh’ and luckily, I still mean it.  This is my fourth visit to the show.  On previous occasions, in the role of King Arthur I’ve seen comedians: Sanjeev Bhaskar, Phill Jupitus, Marcus Brigstocke, each of whom bring much of themselves to the part.  In this touring production from Selladoor, we have an actor, the excellent Bob Harms, who plays his Arthur as a character.  It makes a lot of difference.  Harms has a touch of the Graham Chapman to him, but also a little bit of Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder, I think; it adds up to a silly, delightful performance, holding the show together.

King Arthur

All alone, Bob Harms

Harms is supported by equally silly, equally skilful knights.  Johnathan Tweedie’s Lancelot is a ridiculous brute, Norton James’s Galahad transforms from peasant to preening matinee idol; Stephen Arden’s cowardly Sir Robin is a lot of fun, while Mark Akinfolarin’s Sir Bedevere provides a lot of the physical comedy.  Coconut-bearer Patsy (Rhys Owen) nails the show’s most well-known song (Always Look On The Bright Side of Life – filched from Life of Brian, of course).  Sarah Harlington’s scene-stealing Lady of the Lake is magnificent: her vocal skills and parodies are remarkable – the best I’ve heard in the role.  I make special mention of Matthew Pennington, an absolute scream as Prince Herbert, among other roles, but really the comedic skills of the entire troupe are marvellous to behold.

The show is just as much a parody of musical theatre as it is a retelling of the Arthurian legend.  Knowing, self-referential and satirical, the show exposes and celebrates the genre’s conventions, wrapped up in the peculiarly British revelling in silliness the Pythons represent.  Spamalot is Monty Python-lite, lacking the edge, the sense of daring the group had when the Circus first took flight.  There are enough references to the Python oeuvre to satisfy fans, alongside topical allusions that keep the show current.  The show stands as an entity in its own right – I met someone who’d never seen it before, hadn’t seen the film, and she loved it.

And I was more than happy to reacquaint myself with the show’s delights.  Being a touring show, the production is somewhat scaled down (e.g. only two chorus girls) but there is no stinting on talent and fun.  A laugh-out-loud-and-long couple of hours with some great tunes, excellently presented and charmingly daft.  I loved it.

Dancing

A right Herbert: Matthew Pennington, backed by Marc Akinfolarin and Rhys Owen